Paul Kane at Jasper’s House

The View of the Mountains from the Athabasca River

This image of Thomas Lowe’s “Mountain View” is numbered nd-18-11 in Glenbow Archives and is used with their permission. This impressive view, near modern-day Hinton, AB, is mentioned in every fur trade journal coming west. Paul Kane said the men celebrated three cheers when they first saw the mountains. 

So, we just left Paul Kane watching as Montrose McGillivray punished a voyageur for stealing provisions of pemmican made with berries. The incoming York Factory Express party is travelling up the Athabasca River toward Jasper’s House very late in the year [October 1846], and it is beginning to get cold. Winter is coming, as it always does. Paul Kane’s journal after that point begins:

October 25th to 27th — There was no change in the general aspect of the country; the same monotonous scenery still surrounded us.

Paul Kane had already commented on the monotony of the scenery, saying, “This is the most monotonous river that ever I have met with in my travels. Nothing but point after point appearing, all thickly covered with pine, any extensive view being entirely out of the question.” Clearly nothing has changed in the ten days since he had written that line in his journal. This is how Paul Kane continues his story:

October 28th — We passed the mouth of the Old Man’s River. The Indians say that an evil spirit once came down this river — which is so rapid that no canoe can ascend it — and that having reached its mouth, where it enters the Athabasca, he made five steps down, leaving a rapid at every step. These rapids are a mile apart. After which he returned and went up his own river, and has not since been heard of. The [Athabasca] River now became so shallow that we were obliged to make two discharges.

Today’s Old Man [Oldman] River is in southern Alberta, so this “Old Man” River has a different name today. As Paul Kane hasn’t mentioned Baptiste’s River, I presume that this is that river, now named Berland River. It’s in the right place, as the brigade is still east of Hinton, Alberta, where the Rocky Mountains can be clearly seen in the not-so-distant distance. In addition to that, other HBC men have said that once they passed the mouth of Berland’s River there was deeper water in the Athabasca, and travel was both safer and faster. So, it all fits. Paul Kane’s journal continues:

October 29th — The bank of the river being very high, I ascended it, and saw for the first time the sublime and apparently endless chain of the Rocky Mountains. The outline was scarcely perceptible in the distance through the intervening smoky atmosphere, which is caused by the almost invariable conflagration of the woods at this season of the year. McGillivray wounded a moose while out with his gun. The deer took to the water, and swam across to the opposite side. I took the boat and followed him, and brought him down at the first shot. He was a fine large buck. It being nearly night, we encamped on the spot, and supped heartily off him, carrying his remains with us next morning. 

October 30th — We had a fine view of the mountains from the boat for the first time; the men greeted them with a hearty cheer. 

And, I think, they threw their caps in the air. The conflagration in the woods is interesting: I wonder if the First Nations along the Athabasca set fire to the woods to clear the undergrowth, as they always have done in British Columbia. I think it is highly likely that they did. But sighting the Rocky Mountains is also important to the men: it meant that they were coming closer to home. The first view of the Rockies occurs slightly east of modern-day Hinton. Alexander Caulfield Anderson called this point the “Vue de la Montagne,

where the first grand outline of the Rocky Mountains bursts upon the view, the snow suddenly ceases along the river, and the banks continue bare as far as Jasper’s House, a distance of fifty miles.

As you will see, however, this was not Paul Kane’s experience. Kane’s journal continues:

October 31st — The atmosphere clear but very cold. I made a sketch of the river and the mountains in the distance.

November 1st — We entered Jasper’s Lake in the morning. This lake is about twelve miles long, and from three to four miles wide, but at this season of the year very shallow, on account of its sources in the mountains being frozen. We had to land three men on the south shore for the purpose of decreasing the draft of our boat; but even then we proceeded with great difficulty. Shortly after we had put them on shore, it began to blow a perfect hurricane, which drove us to the north side, and a snow storm coming on, we were compelled to encamp. This was unfortunate, as it was impossible to communicate with the men whom we had left at the other side, and who were without either provisions or blankets, and we knew from the intense cold that they must be suffering severely. 

November 2nd — We were now close upon the mountains, and it is scarcely possible to conceive the intense force with which the wind howled through a gap formed by the perpendicular rock called “Miette’s Rock,” 1500 feet high, on the one side, and a lofty mountain on the other. The former derives its appellation from a french voyageur, who climbed its summit and sat smoking his pipe with his legs hanging over the fearful abyss.

It is fascinating to see how this story, above, is continued throughout Paul Kane’s journals. In 1826, Lieutenant Aemilius Simpson told this same story. Here it is, in his words.

I employed myself in the forenoon, with the assistance of Mr. [George] Barnston, in measuring the height of Miette’s Rock, the remarkable Mountain whose northern termination falls perpendicularly and forms the southern boundary of the grand defile through which our route lays at its entry. This mountain has its name from a Canadian who had ascended to its summit, when he sat down on the edge of the precipice, nearly four thousand feet high, & felt so little apprehension that he amused himself by scraping his heels against the rock — he must be very credulous that believes this story.

The mountain is still there, but its massive “nose,” which diverted the Athabasca River to the west, has been blasted away so that the railway could run its tracks through the valley. It is interesting how history is erased, and yet doesn’t disappear. Paul Kane’s journal continues, as two men proceed ahead of the boat to Jasper’s House:

McGillivray and the guide went on to Colin Frazer’s, distant about fourteen or fifteen miles, to procure horses, as we found that further progress in the boat was impossible, both on account of the shallowness of the water and the violence of the wind. 

November 3rd — The hurricane still continued, accompanied by very heavy snow; indeed, from what I heard, I believe it is always blowing at this place. The forest is composed entirely of very high pine trees, small in circumference, and growing thickly together; these had a very curious appearance in the storm, as they waved in the wind like a field of grain. The immense long roots seemed to be especially provided them by nature to prevent their being blown over; and, as the soil is very light, and upon a rocky foundation, these roots formed a net work near the surface, which was in constant motion, and rocked us to sleep as we lay round our camp fires.

Now this is fascinating! It really happens that when the wind blows through a forest of trees with shallow roots, that the forest floor rises and falls like the surface of an ocean! I have not personally experienced this (because of being a logger’s daughter I stay out of the woods when the wind is blowing), but I have seen films or videos that show this happening! And it is spooky, believe me! It is hard to believe, but it is real. Paul Kane’s journal continues:

Meanwhile, our Guide returned from Jasper’s House with several horses. We found our boat blown out of the water and lying fifteen feet distant from it on the shore, although its weight was so great that the strength of our remaining nine men could not return it to its element. 

I selected a horse, and taking the guide with me, started for the establishment in advance of the rest of the party. After a severe ride of four hours, and having forded the river four times, dangerously crowded with drift ice born down by a rapid current, sometimes coming over the saddle, I arrived at Jasper’s House cold, wet, and famished. But I was soon cheered by a blazing fire and five or six pounds of mountain sheep, which I certainly then thought far more delicious than any domestic animal of the same species. 

So Paul Kane enjoyed the enormous meal of mountain sheep meat, as many did. George Traill Allan had lots to say of the flavour of the mountain sheep, but of course he loved to eat! In 1831, he says:

We arrived at Klyne’s House [Jasper’s House], a small fort situated in a most romantic valley surrounded on all sides by mountains of immense height, where wild sheep are to be found in considerable abundance. There are two description of these animals, White and Grey. The flesh of the latter is excellent, but that of the former smells and tastes strongly of murk.

The latter is mountain sheep, and the former mountain goat, a close relative of the musk oxen whose meat also tastes strongly of murk. How interesting — I missed that in this post:

About ten o’clock that evening, to our great joy, the three men whom we had left on the south shore came in. Their sufferings had been very great, as they had been wandering through the woods for three days without food, endeavouring to find the house which none of them had been at before. One of them had not even taken his coat with him, and it was only by lying huddled together at night that they escaped being frozen. Another suffered dreadfully from the swelled state of his legs, caused by the strings usually tied round their leggings being too tight, and which owing to his benumbed condition, he did not perceive. We had some difficulty in cutting them off, as they were buried in the swollen flesh. 

November 4th — Mr. Lane and party arrived safe in the evening with the loaded horses. Jasper’s House consists of only three miserable log huts. The dwelling-house is composed of two rooms, of about fourteen or fifteen feet square each. One of them is used by all comers and goers: Indians, voyageurs, and traders, men, women, and children being huddled together indiscriminately: the other room being devoted to the exclusive occupation of Colin and his family, consisting of a Cree squaw; and nine interesting half-breed children. One of the other huts is used for storing provisions in, when they can get any, and the other I should have thought a dog kennel had I seen many of the canine species about. this post is only kept up for the purpose of supplying horses to parties crossing the mountains. 

So Paul Kane wasn’t impressed by Jasper’s House. The incoming brigade did not spend much time at this spot. They were traveling late in the season and clearly, winter was approaching. The next blogpost in this series will continue with their journey west — actually traveling to the south — up the Jasper Valley toward the Whirlpool River and Athabasca Pass. It is highly likely it will be a cold, snow-bound journey, but I haven’t yet read ahead and so I will find out when you do. 

To return to the beginning of this story, go here:

When the next section of this Paul Kane journal is published, it will appear here: We have a while to go on this, as you know he also travelled out with the winter express to Edmonton House in 1847.

This is part of the York Factory Express thread: if you want to order my book, The York Factory Express, you can do so here: 

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2021. All rights reserved.